aka Rambo: First Blood
Conventional wisdom seems to have rallied round the first Rambo movie as an earnest, low-key piece about a Nam vet, one that belies the bloated carcasses flying hither and thither in later excursions. That’s not quite the case. First Blood starts out well enough, certainly, mustering a legitimate sense of injustice over Stallone’s persecuted (and smelly) John Rambo. But this is still a picture all about overstatement, and director Ted Kotcheff was definitely not the guy to turn it into something special.
First Blood went through a number of directors and writers after David Morrell’s novel was published and the rights snapped up in 1972 (an estimated eighteen versions of the script). Stallone toned it down such that Rambo became more sympathetic, no longer killing his pursuers (only one, the particularly abusive sergeant who ignites it all, dies, and only indirectly due to John’s actions) and no longer buys the farm (fortuitous for franchise purposes). Still, the picture came in over three hours, and Stallone disliked it sufficiently that he had the lead role significantly pared down in order to let others tell the tale; it ended up at half that length.
For all the pumped-up flexing of subsequent instalments, the Rambo of the opening scenes is closer to the humble Stallone who embodies the first Rocky, only more taciturn. Stallone, who attested to doing seven rewrites himself, isn’t a writer known for subtext, or sub-anything; everything he depicts lies on the surface. Brian Dennehy delivers a solid counter to the Vet as Sheriff Teasle, seeing Rambo’s intrusion on his town in much the same way he would a hippy a decade earlier (advising him to have a haircut and take a bath, after escorting him to the town limits). Famously, of course, Rambo doesn’t like being pushed, which brings out the tiger in him.
The abuse he suffers from Teasle’s chief deputy (Jack Starrett) triggers Nam flashbacks (crudely envisioned) in Stallone’s own Bruce Banner, leading to his hulking out in a scene that may have inspired James Cameron’s Terminator police station massacre (less corpses, but Cameron did go on to script Rambo; First Blood Part II so it had surely made some impact). Once he’s headed off into the woods on a motorbike, Rambo is refashioned as the archetype of the anti-authoritarian, misunderstood survivalist. Except he’s a morally palatable one who, not unlike like The A-Team, doesn’t terminate with extreme prejudice (he only stabs and impale victims, including David Caruso and Chris Mulkey).
While there’s a canny takes on weekend warrior National Guardsmen, playing at soldiers until the going gets tough (“Come on, I’ve got to be back at the drugstore tomorrow”), much of the survival sequence is surprisingly lacklustre; only the initial pursuit by Teasle’s men, in which Rambo effectively dispenses with them, makes the grade. John spends significant time trapped down a mine, rattled by rats, before escaping to bring Teasle to heel in a conveniently deserted town.
The biggest chortle in this comes from Richard Crenna’s mentor and Dr Frankenstein (“God didn’t make Rambo, I did”), issuing a compendium of ridiculously portentous lines in the service of bulking up Rambo’s prowess (“I came here to rescue you from him” he warns Teasle, who will need “a good supply of body bags” if he sends 200 men against John, and then there’s the clichéd dialogue; “I was there with you, knee-deep in blood and guts”).
Rambo’s breakdown scene is reasonable in its way; Sly’s giving it all he’s got, which may be unintentionally funny, but still has a certain something, as Rambo invokes a friend who was blown apart while grasping for comfort from the superior who lacks the emotional facility to respond. Everything else is so expressly over the top, however, that the picture merits little consideration as a serious analysis as a depiction of PTSD.
It’s interesting that audiences responded so affirmatively to First Blood, as it’s mostly unremarkable, not even really keeping a tight grip on Rambo’s righteous retaliation (The Film Year Book Volume 2 commented that Vietnam and some liberal soft talk were presented as “enough to justify the enjoyment of violence for its own sake”, which is probably true, but credits he film with more expert manipulation than it actually displays). It did, of course, become infamous for a time due to an entirely unproven connection with the Hungerford Massacre (one of many examples of media attempting to demonise movies rather than people doing the deeds themselves – or society as a whole, man). First Blood, while not being a fairly unremarkable picture, remains noteworthy as the last Stallone role before he became an action movie icon, while simultaneously being the seed that germinated said status.